Court: Wrongly jailed man can't collect damages
Judges say state doesn't owe for 3 years Alan Stein spent in prison
A federal appeals court said Friday that a man who wrongly spent three years in an Arizona prison cannot recover damages from the state.
The ruling upholds a lower court decision for Alan Stein, who pleaded guilty to attempted sexual contact with a minor in 1997, was given lifetime probation, then sentenced to 10 years in prison after violating that probation in 2006.
Stein, 53, had served three years of jail time when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that he should actually have been off probation long before he was sent to prison.
He sued the state, the Department of Corrections and various state employees over his imprisonment, but a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the suit.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court Friday. It said that while the state “had a duty to ensure that his prison sentence was calculated correctly, it had no duty to review the legality of his sentencing order” and does not owe him damages.
Stein’s attorney did not return a call seeking comment Friday. State lawyers also declined comment.
The case began Aug. 1, 1997, when Stein pleaded guilty in Maricopa County Superior Court to attempted sexual contact with a minor between October 1995 and October 1996. He was ordered to spend a year in jail and given lifetime probation. After he violated probation in February 2006, he was ordered to prison to begin a 10-year sentence.
The legality of Stein’s sentence came into question in November 2008, when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated case that laws in effect at the time of his original sentence only permitted lifetime probation for “completed offenses against children.”
Both sides agreed that, under that ruling, Stein’s “attempted child molestation” conviction should have merited no more than five years of probation. That means he should have been off probation in 2002, long before he was sent to jail for violating it.
Stein’s prison sentence, therefore, was recognized as illegal. He was released in February 2009, four months after the Supreme Court ruling.
Stein claimed that because the Arizona Department of Corrections was responsible for his prison time, it was duty-bound to make sure that he was sentenced legally. He sued, claiming violations of his Eighth Amendment right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and 14th Amendment right to due process.
But the appeals court said he “received all the process that was due to him,” according to the opinion by Circuit Judge Clifford Wallace.
The ruling emphasized that the legality of a sentence is a court’s responsibility; the Corrections Department is obligated to carry out that sentence.
“The department has no authority to refuse to enforce a sentence issued by a competent court,” Wallace wrote.